Seeing Gayle King on stage at the Forbes Women’s Summit in 2015, Emily Núñez Cavness knew she had to act fast. She was lucky to be an invited guest at this networking bonanza, and she had no intention of wasting the opportunity. She dumped the contents of her bag, bolted up front, and tucked into a dark corner. When the CBS Morning Show host (and editor-at-large of O, The Oprah Magazine) walked off stage, Cavness pounced.
Cavness pushed the bag into King’s hands and launched into the elevator pitch about her company, Sword & Plough, which was two years old at the time. How it makes everything from rucksacks to totes out of recycled military fabric. How it reduces environmental waste, supports veterans, and promotes American manufacturing.
The following year, the stunt paid off. Cavness, along with her sister and cofounder Betsy, got coverage in O, The Oprah Magazine, and Sword & Plough saw a boost in sales. While Cavness was never contacted by King, she’s convinced that the article was no coincidence.
Cavness, who just completed her first year in the MBA program at Stanford GSB, attributes her will to use business for social good to her Army brat upbringing. Her father served for 30 years in the U.S. Army, retired as a colonel, and then became a U.S. Department of State advisor in Iraq.
“I grew up with a sense of duty, of wanting to devote myself to public service,” she says. She was also inspired by one of her uncles, an astronaut. She recalls visiting Cape Canaveral at age 5 to watch him blast off on a space mission and being instilled by a profound sense of possibility. “It taught me that you really can do anything you set your mind to.”
The idea for Sword & Plough came to Cavness in 2012, just months before graduating from Middlebury College, where for several years she was the lone ROTC cadet. Living in environmentally conscious Vermont heightened her awareness of the large quantity of gear the military discards annually, much of it burned or tossed into landfills.
She thought to herself, “What in my life is sometimes wasted that could be transformed into something useful?” Turning her tent into tote bags was the answer.
Soon after, Cavness pitched her idea at a competition at Middlebury’s Center for Social Entrepreneurship. She was anxious, having no real business plan or relevant experience. Her boyfriend (now husband), Cully, advised her to focus on her sense of purpose, and she won first prize.
“Sharing the reason you want to do something helps get you over the roadblocks of thinking you don’t have the right experience,” she says.
Emily Núñez Cavness is the co-founder and CEO of Sword & Plough and a former U.S. Army Captain.
After a successful Kickstarter campaign in 2013, Sword & Plough’s launch was disrupted when (just weeks later) Cavness, at age 22, unexpectedly deployed to Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, where she served as an intelligence officer responsible for locating roadside bombs.
Back in the United States, her sister Betsy was left with the task of producing and shipping their first 1,500 bags. In her few free moments on the dusty base, Emily would cobble together an internet connection to Skype with the startup’s team.
Today, Sword & Plough has helped support over 75 veterans’ jobs directly or through partners. The company has recycled more than 30,000 pounds of military gear and contracts exclusively with veteran-owned or -operated U.S. manufacturers to make its line of rucksacks, pouches, commuter bags, and totes. It donates 10% of proceeds (or 2% of revenue, whichever is higher) to organizations improving veterans’ lives. In 2017, Sword & Plough received B Corporation certification, making it one of roughly 1,500 companies worldwide formally recognized for using business for social benefit.
One of their manufacturing partners, David Carmichael, owner of Armor Products Manufacturing, says he prefers working with fellow vets like Cavness. “People who have been in the military are used to doing what they say they are going to do, doing it when they say they are going to do it, and following through,” he says.
While Cavness could do production more cheaply abroad, she says the benefits of manufacturing domestically outweigh the costs: “Customers have definitely responded to the broader mission.”
Cavness got out of the Army in 2017 as a captain. She credits her military experience for shaping her as a business leader. She adopted the very direct communication style that is a military norm, and she learned to be decisive. “You are given so much responsibility at a young age, and there are few places that offer that,” she says.
She also learned to appreciate the way the military operates as “a great equalizer, from pay to opportunities for combat roles” — a concept she’s adopted at Sword & Plough.
Despite learning so many leadership lessons from the Army, Cavness soon realized that she needed to deepen her knowledge in functional areas like finance and marketing to continue Sword & Plough’s growth. As she pursues her MBA, she has maintained her CEO role from afar. She says she’s already applying several practical tools from Stanford GSB, including new models for inventory forecasting, novel incentive and reward systems, and lessons to improve efficiency.
As the business grows, so have creative ideas for assisting and incorporating vets. Sword & Plough now partners with jewelry artisan Shanna Rosenberg, a former machine gunner who’s turning used .50 caliber bullet casings into necklaces, earrings, rings, and tie bars. Rosenberg has designed a line exclusively for Sword & Plough.
A uniform-donation program started soon after Cavness left the military and realized she had boxes full of uniforms that she no longer needed. Others surely faced the same issue, she thought, so she devised a plan to give old gear a respectful resting place.
“You have memories tied to them, and there isn’t a set process for disposing of them. You don’t want to throw them out,” Cavness says. Military members or their families can go online and receive a free mailing label to send their discards to Sword & Plough. There, they are sorted and shipped to a veteran in Colorado, who cuts them into squares to use as pockets in new bags.
“The best part has been all the letters and stories that come with the uniforms,” she says. “Many people send photos. We even received a World War I U.S. Army uniform. We aren’t going to cut that one up, though.”
Diana Kapp, MBA ’96 profiled Emily Núñez Cavness, MBA ’20 in her recently released book, Girls Who Run the World: 31 CEOs Who Mean Business.
Photos by Tricia Seibold